Mid-Atlantic Kicks Off Severe Weather Preparedness Week with Rare March Snowstorm

Photo by Tim Evanson

Photo by Tim Evanson

By Stacy Stanford, MSPH, Program Analyst, Public Health Preparedness, NACCHO, and Justin Snair, Senior Program Analyst, Critical Infrastructure and Environmental Security, NACCHO.

Here in Washington, D.C., a rare late-winter snowstorm is currently wreaking havoc at the start of Severe Weather Preparedness week (March 2-8), a public education effort organized by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aimed at improving the way people prepare for and respond to severe weather. As local governments strive to keep people safe and off the roads and crews work to keep travel moving with dwindling resources during the east coast’s twenty-first snowstorm of the season, local governments’ planning and budgets for winter weather have been strained beyond their capacity. And while everyone might be waiting with bated breath for Spring’s arrival, the season hosts its own set of weather dangers — tornadoes, thunderstorms, and flash flooding, for example.

Emergency preparedness managers must now prepare local communities for atypical as well as typical severe weather events. In 2012, the mid-Atlantic region saw a Derecho, a new severe weather event that caught the region unprepared. As a result, the response to the derecho was mainly reactive. After the storm, the D.C. Department of Homeland Security implemented an improved planning process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, improved training, and began using FEMA’s WebEOC to track resources and manage logistics [1]. These measures will help the region prepare for and respond to future events.

Extreme weather has plagued the U.S. this winter with few regions escaping the wrath. Eighty-eight percent of the Great Lakes were frozen over as of mid February, the polar vortex brought severe low temperatures and record snowfall in the East, and 90% of California is now classified as under either “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions [2]. According to the United States Global Change Research Program’s 3rd National Climate Assessment, temperatures, rainfall, droughts, high-intensity hurricanes, and severe flooding events are all increasing and projected to continue as the world’s climate warms. Severe weather is not only an annoyance to commuters and schools, it drains local economies, damages communities and utilities infrastructures, and can result in the physical and mental distress of citizens.

2011-2013 had 32 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included five severe weather and tornado events, a major flood event, and the western drought / heat wave. In 2013 alone, these events killed 109 people and had significant economic effects on the impacted areas [3]. Flooding, colder temperatures, and drought all impact agricultural, livestock, and fishery yields as well, further distressing the U.S. economy and citizens.

As public health preparedness professionals across the country prepare for the severe weather events this Spring, the following are some valuable resources:

  • Participate in Attribution of Extreme Weather, a webinar on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – 15:30 hosted by NOAA, where scientists will discuss what characterizes an extreme weather event. They also will explore how scientists attribute single events or trends in extreme weather to climate change.
  • Promote NOAA and FEMA’s Be a Force of Nature: Take the Next Step education campaign, which asks that the public take a single preparedness action during each day of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week. This can be as simple as preparing an emergency communications plan for your family. But the sum of these actions will ensure that communities are better prepared for severe weather.
  • Check out the National Storm Water Calculator, a desktop application developed by the EPA that estimates the annual amount of rainwater and frequency of runoff from a specific site anywhere in the United States (including Puerto Rico). Estimates are based on local soil conditions, land cover, and historic rainfall records. It is designed to be used by anyone interested in reducing runoff from a property, including site developers, landscape architects, urban planners, and homeowners.

During Severe Weather Preparedness Week, take advantage of early bird savings (ending on March 6) for the 2014 Preparedness Summit and make a commitment to learn more about how to prepare your community for extreme weather. See below for sample sessions and workshops that will provide training and critical information for climate change adaptation and preparing for rare weather events:

  1. http://www.werf.org/c/KnowledgeAreas/ClimateChange/Extreme_Weather.aspx
  2. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA
  3. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events accessed Feb 24, 2014


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